Country's Largest Unions Move Toward AFL-CIO Split

Frustrated by their failure to reform the nation's labor federation from within, five unions representing a third of the AFL-CIO's members founded a rival group today and pledged to coordinate a sustained effort to recruit new workers.

The presidents of two of those unions, the Service Employees International's Andrew Stern and the Food and Commercial Workers' Joe Hansen, strongly hinted they would withdraw from the AFL-CIO after the federation's July convention.

The new organization will be called the Change to Win Coalition. Its formation marks the end of a yearlong effort by Stern and the others to convince other unions to adopt their reform proposals, which stress structural reform and organizing new workers over political action.

"We don't think throwing more money into a political process and ignoring organizing is going to get the job done," Hansen said at a news conference.

Besides the SEIU and the UFCW, the other participating unions include the Teamsters; Unite-Here, which represents textile and food service workers; and the Laborers, an important construction union. Laborers' President Terry O'Sullivan said his union will remain in the AFL-CIO, but the Teamsters and Unite-Here may withdraw from the federation.

"This coalition is an historic occasion for working people. I hope and believe that it will spark a change in the labor movement that will change the face of America," said Unite-Here President Bruce Raynor.

These unions believe the AFL-CIO's own reform effort, which was endorsed by an executive committee on Monday, preserves the status quo and will do nothing to expand labor's size and clout. The unions plan to oppose AFL-CIO President John Sweeney when the labor federation votes on his re-election at its July convention.

"I sincerely hope that the unions forming this coalition outside the AFL-CIO will continue to join -- and help lead -- the rest of the union movement from within the AFL-CIO," Sweeney said in a statement. "Disunity only plays into the hands of workers' worst enemies at a time when working families are already under attack."

The Change to Win Coalition has a constitution and bylaws but no permanent staff and no detailed plan for getting started. Each of the five unions has contributed $100,000 in seed money.

Labor officials said the group will coordinate legislative and political action and resolve jurisdictional disputes among its members. Significantly, in the view of the five unions, it will work together to organize new workers. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said that four other unions had expressed interest in joining the Change to Win Coalition.

Union Membership Dwindling

Fifty years ago, one-third of American workers were union members. Today, the number is 12 percent, and it is declining.

Labor leaders blame the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and a shift to an information-based service economy for their recent troubles.

"If you think the union is going to guarantee your job security in your job, workers have learned that their security is most guaranteed by their ability to acquire new skills as they move through life, not by attaching themselves to an organization that resists change," said Peter Morici, a professor of business at the University of Maryland who studies labor.

In the past eight years, labor has spent more than $500 million on elections -- some estimates say twice that amount. But most high-profile candidates backed by labor have lost. And the current administration, aware of labor's affinity for Democrats, has worked to tamp down their influence on public policy debates.

Sweeney and his allies have said they agree that growing labor's ranks is a priority. But in March, they proposed a plan to increase funding for the federation's political program, cutting more than 100 positions not devoted to politics. Their proposal for organizing includes a $22.5 million fund and a rebate of $15 million in AFL-CIO dues to unions that promise to devote the money to attracting new members.

The dissident unions want the AFL-CIO to rebate half the money each union pays to the AFL-CIO if that union promises to devote it to organizing. That would open up more than $47 million. They also propose to spend an additional $25 million on organizing large companies like Wal-Mart.

Beyond the numbers, the proposals differ more broadly on accountability. The dissidents want tougher penalties for unions who don't meet standards and better coordination of organizing campaigns within industries. They also want the power to force smaller unions to merge into larger ones if the unions' members agree.

Still, the language of the proposals is similar, and much of the dispute involves the often-outsized personalities in the labor movement.

They include:

Stern, an outspoken crusader for broad reform who has helped make the SEIU into the AFL-CIO's biggest and most politically powerful union. His comments have alienated other labor leaders at times.

AFL-CIO leader Sweeney was elected 10 years ago on a platform of growth and remains well-liked. But Stern, who was his campaign manager, now believes that Sweeney is too weak to force needed change and has failed to resolve disputes between labor unions.

Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the machinists and aerospace workers, does not like Stern and believes that the reform efforts are a cover for a power grab.

James Hoffa, the son of the legendary Teamsters boss whose reform proposals attracted the support of Stern and three other unions, gives the dissident movement credibility among unions who oppose it.

Ed McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has played a behind-the-scenes role in trying to bridge the divide and is seen as a potential successor to Sweeney.